Brazil’s Sweet Sixty

in 69th Cannes Film Festival

by Noémie Luciani

Amongst the 21 movies of this year’s Competition, almost half of them are women’s portraits. From one character to another, from one actress to the other, the gallery that was built during this Festival is extraordinary. Lonely and self-sacrificed to her cause (Doctor Jenny/ Adèle Haenel in The Unknown girl, “La fille inconnue”), or on the contrary sunny and traveling in a wolf pack (Sasha Lane in American Honey), demon with the body of an angel (Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon), mutinous, cruel and playful (Kim Min-Hee and Kim Tae-ri in The Handmaiden) or haunted and prisoner of her own silences (Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper), absent mother (Marion Cotillard in From the Land of the Moon, “Mal de Pierres”) or broken mother (Emma Suarez in Julieta), or simply rebel to any label (Isabelle Huppert in Elle), this year’s Festival de Cannes heroines are very different, except for the fact that all of them are, in their way, strong women, and strong heads.

In the end, one of these exceptional women who is more likely to haunt the cinema lovers for a long time comes from Brazil. She’s the main character of Aquarius, and her name is Clara.

In Neighbouring Sounds, his previous feature film, director Kleber Mendonça Filho had drawn through a mosaic of characters a vigorous painting of modern Brazil, stuck in its contradictions: hungry for opulence and self-confidence, obsessed with security (and security cameras), too sensitive to the sounds of the street, the neighbours or of a dog barking, lingering in its tendency to divide society in castes, like the centuries before.

Aquarius is the other side of the coin: It’s an anthem for the resistance to paranoia. As if to insist on the fact that the majority sticks with Neighbouring Sounds’ ordinary fears, Kleber Mendonça Filho chose this time to paint not a small group of rebels, but one woman, Clara. He captures her in first youth, her hair very short after her victorious struggle against cancer, but doesn’t dwell too long on this semi-sweet period or her life. What matters to him is Clara’s second youth, at sixty. She lives alone now in the apartment where her family grew, the last occupant of an old building, the Aquarius, recently bought by a real-estate promoter – except for her flat.

The mere fact of staying here, in this no man’s land in the heart of the city, is a first form of resistance – to the real-estate tsunami, and everything it reveals of this society, prisoner of herself that we already saw in Neighbouring Sounds – but the way she stays here matters even more. Clara doesn’t make do with occupying the ground: she lives here, fully. Her solitary hedonism, her naps in the hammock in her living room, her appetite for youth and sex, are a provocation of another kind, discreet but maybe more powerful than face-to-face with the men in suits – which is all about false politeness and sarcasm. It has nothing to do with the stubbornness of a woman getting old before her time. On the contrary, it is because she doesn’t give a shit about all this, the money and the speeches about modernity and urban territory development. Recife got old, got stuck in gentrification, like an old coquette. Clara, with her dark hair and the silhouette of a young dancer, wears her wrinkles like an armour. She’s got a flame in her eyes, something fierce, ferocious even. Maybe it is because she already battled against death. She moves forward in the heart of the city, of a whole country maybe, which does not tell reality from nightmares anymore.

Sonia Braga, who plays this beautifully written and wonderfully filmed character, is mesmerizing. Even if he goes on questioning modern Brazilian society, Kleber Mendonça Filho seems unable to detach his eyes from his actress. Her character is so strong, so wild sometimes that she intimidates people and tends to turn them away – even her own children. The film plays Icarus with her: she gives it its light, but the closer it gets, the more it risks consuming itself in her flame. Kleber Mendonça Filho’s mastery of his art manages to keep her within the limits of her place in the movie. But socially speaking, it’s the world upside down. The young Brazil from Neighbouring Sounds, that we see also in Aquarius through the eyes of a young real-estate promoter for example, is old before its time. But the sixty-years old Brazil, reflecting itself in the eyes of a woman, finds in its stubborn and discrete resistance, in its obstinacy to enjoy life, some kind of punk spirit which the young men in suits could learn from.  

Edited by Rita Di Santo